Tuesday, February 28, 2023

The Granddaddy of All Confidence Schemes: Poyais

Confidence schemes have been in the news lately, and I know there have been some doozies in the past. But I never dreamed when I was researching (lovely, lovely research!) for Never Beguile a Bodyguard that I would find one of the most audacious and chilling schemes ever enacted in the Western World.


Never heard of it? According to its guide for immigrants, it was a paradise. The 8,000,000-acre Republic of Poyais lay along the Caribbean. Its capital city, St. Joseph, had tree-lined streets, mansions, and an opera house. It was the center of culture and elegance. The fields surrounding it would grow any manner of food, three crops a year. The oceans in front of it teemed with fish. The mountains at its back were so filled with gold and gems that one might merely bend to pick them up.

Better yet to the people of nineteenth century England, its Cazique (leader) was a decorated hero of the Napoleonic Wars! Colonel (or General, depending on who was his biographer) Gregor MacGregor had gone on to fame in South America, fighting battles for independence there. He was said to have been given charge of his own country in thanks for his services to the king of Mosquito Coast: Poyais.

So when the colonel arrived in London in 1821, graciously seeking investment and immigrants for his new country, hundreds jumped at the chance. Banks offered him loans in astronomical amounts for that time (as high as a quarter of a million pounds). The gentry feted him in their homes. Would-be settlers quit their jobs, sold all they owned, cashed in their savings for notes from the Royal Bank of Poyais, and prepared to set sail. They had been promised positions like clerk, military leader, or banker in the new government. A few had been given titles. They had paid for lands on which to farm or ranch. More than 250 left on two vessels in September 1822.

Only 50 ever made their way back to England.

You see, Poyais didn’t exist.

The first settlers arrived to find no city, no country, no anything! A storm ended up sending their ships back out to sea for safety, stranding them on an inhospitable shore. Most died from sickness or starvation. The king of the Mosquito Coast denied he had ever given MacGregor a kingdom. A few hardy souls stayed in neighboring countries, and the other survivors ultimately found their way back to England in October 1823.

Amazingly, many refused to blame Colonel MacGregor! They were certain they’d simply mistaken their way and that Poyais was out there somewhere, beyond the horizon. They blamed the captains of the ships and MacGregor’s agents, who had come with them, for misleading them.

MacGregor swore he was innocent, but he still fled from England to France, where he continued his scheme. He was arrested in 1825 and tried for his crimes but gave such a passionate defense that he was acquitted. He retired to South America and lived out his life in style, though not in his beloved Poyais.

It seems even he could not find his way back to it.

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Celebrity Endorsements, Regency Style

In November we looked at a riding habit from La Belle Assemblée for June 1816. That was clearly a good month for fashion plates, because we’re going to have a look at the month’s other plate, The Cobourg Walking Dress.

(Does anyone but me think it funny to depict a walking dress on a seated model?) Here’s the accompanying text: Round dress of fine French cambric under a pelisse of amber shot sarsnet, elegantly ornamented in a novel style with blue satin ribband. Oatlands hat to correspond with the pelisse, tied with a chequered ribband of blue on white, and the hat surmounted with a bunch of tuberoses or Passion flowers. Morocco shoes or half boots of light blue the colour of the pelisse trimming. Limerick gloves; and the hair dressed forward in curls.

What’s going on here is a royal wedding: Princess Charlotte, daughter of the Prince Regent, married Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg (or Cobourg)-Saalfeld on May 2, 1816. This particular issue of La Belle Assemblée included lengthy articles on gowns in the princess’s trousseau and on the Queen’s Drawing-Room held in honor of the wedding, both copiously descriptive…which was hardly surprising given the magazine’s target audience and the large number of silk warehouses and other stores given to fashion who advertised with it. And of course, the inimitable Mrs. Bell, “inventor” of the fashions depicted in La Belle Assemblée’s plates, had to get in on the act…which is why we have a Cobourg pelisse and an Oatlands hat, Oatlands being the country estate of the Duke and Duchess of York, where Charlotte and Leopold spent their honeymoon. And of course Passion flowers…need one say anymore?

Let’s have a look at what can see of the outfit (can I say I’m very cross that we can’t see the front?) The back is very handsome, however, with what looks like ruched ribbon in a yoke over the shoulders and on the garment’s edges (and even sewn into the shoulder seams. The gathering at the back of the waist is attractive as well: I wonder if the garment is actually gathered by the ribbon, or if the gathers are sewn in.

I’m not quite sure what’s going on with the hat, however. It starts out as a conventional straw bonnet trimmed with the blue ribbon…but what’s going on at the back of the crown? It rather looks like a large bag has been sewn into it… Any thoughts on what’s happening here?

We all know that Charlotte’s happy marriage was short-lived—sadly, she would die in childbirth a year and a half later. Reading the account of her trousseau and the celebrations around her wedding make for melancholy reading: they’re so full of excitement, of fairy-tale magic “and they lived happily ever after”, and of hope—Charlotte was the heir presumptive to the throne after her father. I wonder if Charlotte herself ever paged over a copy of this edition of La Belle Assemblée and examined this plate, and the walking dress created in her new husband’s honor? Alas, we’ll never know.

What do you think of the Cobourg Walking Dress?


Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Blast from the Past: Today, My Heart Belongs to . . . the Letter Carrier

[I originally penned this post 10 years ago around Valentine’s Day, but I thought it was time to bring it to the forefront. Happy Valentine’s Day!]

Valentine’s Day was eagerly awaited by many a young nineteenth century lass and lad in England. Thousands of Valentine letters were exchanged in London alone. In fact, the 1835 Post-Master General’s report cites an additional 50,000 or 60,000 pieces of mail through the London Twopenny Post around Valentine’s Day. The hundred or so letter carriers in London had to be given additional money for refreshments just to see them through their arduous work. In a bigger city, they might make deliveries as many as six times a day!

However, even with their help, figuring out how to get your Valentine from your fingers to your true love wasn’t for the faint of heart. You could hand it to the postman, if you caught him on one of his rounds, or you could take it to the Post Office near you, which could be at a shop or an inn if you were in a smaller town or village. Later in the century, post boxes appeared to collect letters in certain areas. Some villages didn’t even have post offices or boxes, requiring you to walk miles to post a letter or to take the chance of paying a private firm to deliver your message for you. Many such firms went bankrupt before letters were even delivered.

Then too, each sheet of paper cost money to send, to be paid by the person who received it. While England was at war with France, postage costs kept increasing. Postage was also higher the farther the letter had to travel. As you can imagine, the cost put a burden on the average working man or lady, not to mention the underemployed teen.

So, letter writers got creative. Instead of using more than one sheet, they wrote on both sides of the one, vertically, horizontally, and then kitty corner! Such cross writing was notoriously difficult to read, particularly squinting over candlelight. Then too, some friends or family who lived far apart arranged a code. If a letter arrived from the friend with your name misspelled or perhaps the address lettered wrong, why you knew that the friend was well and you could refuse to pay for the letter. There were also tales of people writing with milk along the margins of newspapers, which were free to mail, so that a friend could read the note over the heat of a flame. 

Letters that were refused ended up in the Dead Letter Office. I can imagine it looking something like the Library of Congress in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, although this is what one looked like in America in the early twentieth century. (Tires?  Really?) Post Office employees often had to open the mail to determine how else it might find it rightful home. But in the early nineteenth century in England, Post Office employees were allowed to open and read your mail under other circumstances too, such as if you were suspected of being a traitor to England (“Dear Napoleon—I love you!”), evading Customs (“Dear Aunt Charlotte, that case of Brussels lace is safely stored in the cave under Peasbury Abbey.”), or involved in a robbery (“Dear Susan, I am delighted to relate that I was able to make away with that diamond ring you always wanted.”). If you were in jail for bankruptcy, the Post Office even sent all your mail to the solicitor in charge of prosecuting the case!

I’m just thankful for mail carriers today. They deliver author copies, fan mail, royalty statements, and all manner of things designed to make a writer’s heart go pitter-patter, even when it isn’t Valentine’s Day.

Tuesday, February 7, 2023

A Lot of Gas…or Was It?

My dear nephew (thanks, Ian!) sent me the following item, which first appeared in the Northampton Mercury on July 23, 1808, and again on the blog of the website britishnewpaperarchive.co.uk roughly two hundred years later. I cannot vouch for its veracity (one of the principals being named "Monsieur Le Pique" does ring a few quiet BS-o-meter alarms in my head), but by gosh, what a story!

I’ll let you be the judge:

Novel Duel.—A very novel species of duel has lately taken place at Paris. M. Grandpree and M. Le Pique having quarreled about Mademoiselle Tirevit, a celebrated opera dancer, who was kept by the former, but was discovered in an intrigue with the latter, a challenge ensued. Being both men of elevated minds, they agreed to fight in balloons, and in order to give time for their preparation, it was determined that the duel should take place on that day month. Accordingly on the 3rd of May the parties met in a field adjoining the Tuilleries [sic], where their respective balloons were ready to receive them. Each, attended by his second, ascended his car, loaded with blunderbusses, as pistols could not be expected to be efficient in their probable situations. A multitude attended, hearing of the balloons, but little dreaming of the purpose: the Parisians merely looked for the novelty of a balloon race. At nine o’clock the cords were cut, and the balloons ascended majestically amidst the shouts of the spectators. The wind was moderate, blowing from the north north west, and they kept, as far as could be judged, within about 80 yards of each other. When they had mounted to the height of about 900 yards, M. Le Pique fired his piece ineffectually; almost immediately after the fire was returned by M. Grandpree, and penetrated his adversary’s balloon; the consequence of which was its rapid descent, and M. Le Pique and his second were both dashed to pieces on a house-top, over which the balloon fell. The victorious Grandpree then mounted aloft in the grandest style, and descended safe, with his second, about seven leagues from the spot of ascension.

See the original post here: https://blog.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/2012/08/24/the-first-duel-fought-in-hot-air-balloons-paris-1808/

What do you think? Did it really happen, or did an editor at the Northampton Mercury think that the July 23 issue needed a little sprucing up and concocted the tale out of whole cloth, journalistic rigor not yet having the importance it does in modern times?

Whether it did or not, dear readers, this is what makes studying history so much fun!